Walking into Libarrel restaurant is like taking a trip back to your childhood. It’s about listening to your favourite Pitbull soundtrack, while slurping stew whose home-grown flavour may remind you of your grandma’s secret recipe. I’m accompanied by my friend M, who nods in agreement.
Nostalgia is what defines Libarrel; it greets diners with portraits of Madras in the early 1900s. The space is expansive: it has a dining area on the first floor, a lounge bar on the second floor and a rooftop setting. We choose the first floor — where the walls are embellished with impressive drawings of popular sports club Liverpool, Real Madrid and of course, Chennai Super Kings — and begin the business of eating.
We start with a simple yet delicious paella arancini. Its crispy edges complement the insides of the paella, stuffed with minced tomatoes, onions, capsicum, and tangy cheese. It is served with two sauces — an orange-coloured one that has the flavour of a quintessential South Indian chutney, and a bright pink, beetroot-based mayonnaise. The latter, for obvious reasons, grabs my attention. It tastes nothing like beetroot or mayonnaise, but the perfectly-cooked paella makes up for it. “Normally, people use long-grain rice for an authentic Spanish paella. But here, we substituted it with arborio rice. We have also added a bit of red chilli and garlic with cheese before deep-frying them,” explains head chef Mahendran Lakshmikanthan.
Next is baked fish turk, a sea bass fillet baked with tomato sauce and vegetables. M is pleasantly surprised by the fish’s texture; she pierces through the papery skin with a fork and slices a large piece of meat, without doing much. The broth has a liberal mix of olives and tomatoes. But not many would prefer something this soupy for starters, especially when you have cocktails waiting for you!
Given my past experiences, I was expecting sugarcane juice, masquerading as a cocktail. However, Libarrel’s Pina colada is refreshing to say the least. It is recommended for how smoothly each component — rum, pineapple, tender coconut and caster sugar — blends with the rest, while retaining its individual flavour. By this time, M looks visibly unhappy about her excessively sweet cocktail, which ironically, is called Treasure.
A hint of coconut milk prevails over Thai green curry, which perhaps, may not be the best option for main course. Sure, it looks remarkably pleasing, but the same cannot be said about its taste. At best, it can be described as the sweeter version of avial , also prepared using coconut oil. M, in the meantime, devours steak n ale and explains passionately how soothing the stew is. Her Bengali roots help her judge the dish, which has generous chunks of meat and potato, making it difficult to isolate them from the rest of the gravy. Which is a win-win. “Generally, we sear the meat before adding herbs, spices and vegetables so that the juices remain intact. Any Belgian ale would be ideal for the beer-based gravy,” says Mahendran. In sharp contrast is the typically indigenous Hyderabadi gosht biryani: long-grained rice and soft meat steamed in a banana leaf cylinder to create a fragrant, slightly sticky, slightly spicy delight.
On the sweeter side, ordering coconut soufflé for dessert means treating yourself to a labour of love. It comes with two accompaniments: but compared to the soufflé, the elaneer payasam and coconut cookie aren’t particularly great. When I cut a piece of soufflé, it wobbles like jelly and dissolves in my mouth, in a split second. It leaves a lasting impact on me, potent enough to last till my next food adventure.
- 195, Venkatachalam Street, Mylapore, Chennai
- Cost for two: ₹2,000
- Hits: Pina colada, steak n ale
- Misses: Thai green curry, baked fish turk